Gene Flow

Gene Flow Definition

The exchange of alleles between two or more populations is known as gene flow. In some cases, it is referred to as gene flow or allele migration. Despite the fact that migrating animals often carry new alleles from one population to another, gene flow cannot occur unless they interbreed with the new population. An adult brown beetle migrates into a population of green beetles in the image below.

Brown beetles can pass onto their offspring the alleles that cause brown exoskeletons if they find a mate. It is important to note, however, that these two populations of beetles have evolved into different colors over time. One explanation might be genetic drift or the founder effect, due to the separation of two populations. Genetic diversity helps species survive, so gene flow may be beneficial to the new population. Additionally, gene flow may carry harmful alleles into the new population, making it a negative process.

Interbreeding between two populations (high gene flow) allows them to be considered one population. Even though they may appear to be separate populations due to barriers, they share the same allele frequencies and are basically the same.

Examples of Gene Flow


There are dogs of every shape and size in the world. The largest domestic dogs can dwarf a wild wolf. The smallest domestic dog, even as an adult, could easily be mistaken for a newborn wolf. From wolves, dogs have changed almost every aspect of their appearance in one population or another. Dogs are one of the best known examples of artificial selection, a process through which traits are established through selective breeding.

Around 15,000 years ago, all dogs were essentially wolves. However, some of these pre-dogs were much more likely to scavenge from the new human settlements springing up everywhere. The wolves moved further away from civilization, while the pre-dogs moved closer to the humans. Eventually a “social contract” of sorts was worked out between the humans and the dogs. 

In this contract, dogs provided a service such as waste removal, vermin control, or a hunting guide. Humans would then provide shelter and food. However, the many different human populations had different uses for their dogs.

Some needed dogs to protect their sheep. So, they bred the dogs with the biggest build and a protectionist mentality. These dogs became the large sheep-dog breeds. Other dogs were needed to hunt mice and rabbits in tiny holes. Thus, the Dachshund was born. Need a dog with fluffy hair that likes to fetch? Golden retriever. As these breeders zeroed in on their desired traits, the populations of dogs became more distinct. Yet, they are still all the same species.

Gene flow, in this case, can be imagined as the Labradoodle. Or the half-Beagle, half-Pug mix: the Puggle. Gene flow is the Chiweenie (Chihuahua/Dachshund), shown below. As one dog from a specific population is allowed to breed within a pure-breeding group, new alleles are brought into the mix. The gene pool is expanded, and new varieties are seen. Thus, the labradoodle has a Labrador mentality, but has Poodle hair. Artificial selection allows scientists and breeders to manipulate the timing and specifics of gene flow, to produce desirable traits.

Birds on an Island

Unlike the case of dogs, most cases of gene flow involve natural selection. Imagine a large population of birds on a mainland. When a big storm brews up, it forces some of the birds high into the air to avoid the storm. When the small flock comes down, they find themselves over the ocean. The wind carries them to a small island, where they set up a new home. The two populations are now sufficiently separated that they cannot regularly interbreed.

Over time, the environmental factors affecting the two different populations will differ. The island birds may have to learn to eat a new food, and may be subject to completely different weather patterns. Over time, this may even change the alleles present in the populations. However, there are always more storms. 

In another storm, some birds may get transferred back to the mainland. Here, they can once again interbreed with the main population, and gene flow occurs as the new alleles from the island are introduced into the population.

Likewise, if any birds go from the main population to the island population, they will bring with them the alleles selected for on the mainland. This gene flow will help add diversity to the island population. Because of the founder effect, the birds on the island may not have all the alleles on the mainland, and may benefit from gene flow from the mainland. The mainland birds can also benefit from the novel alleles developed on the island.


Bacteria are very interesting when it comes to gene flow. Unlike the rest of the organisms discussed in this article, bacteria are asexual. Without sexual reproduction, how do bacteria exchange genetic variation?

Bacteria, and other asexual organisms, sometimes transfer genetic variation through alternative processes. These processes, like horizontal gene transfer, allow DNA to pass between organisms without the need for sexual reproduction. In fact, much of the diversity present in life today was caused by these gene transfers millions of years ago. 


What is gene flow?

Gene flow is the transfer of genetic material between populations of the same species. This can occur through the movement of individuals or their gametes (sex cells) between populations.

What are some factors that can influence gene flow?

Factors that can influence gene flow include geographic barriers, such as mountains or bodies of water, which can limit the movement of individuals between populations. Additionally, social or cultural barriers, such as language or mating preferences, can also limit gene flow between populations.

How does gene flow affect genetic diversity?

Gene flow can increase genetic diversity within a population by introducing new alleles (different forms of a gene) from other populations. This can be beneficial for populations that are experiencing environmental pressures or changes.

How does gene flow relate to evolution?

Gene flow can influence the evolution of a population by introducing new genetic variation. Over time, this can lead to the development of new traits or adaptations that are better suited to the environment.

What are some examples of gene flow in nature?

Examples of gene flow in nature include the movement of pollen between plants, the migration of animals between populations, and the dispersal of seeds by wind or water. Additionally, human activities such as transportation and trade can also facilitate gene flow between different human populations.

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